Post-crash politics may at times have been so bleak as to bring me to tears but it’s certainly not been dull. The financial crisis of 2008 briefly seemed to offer exciting opportunities for the left yet it quickly became obvious that the overriding response of elites was ‘let’s get back to normal asap’. Many are convinced we’ve done this, with the surprise Tory victory in May confirming that the ‘status quo’ was back in business. However there’s been a palpable sense of papering over the cracks, of those in power (across the establishment) sticking their fingers in their ears and saying ‘laaaaaaaaa laaaaaaaaaaaa’ very loudly. Whether it be the changing fortunes of the various political parties, the fragile economic ‘recovery’, the crisis in the European Union or the increased visibility of grassroots groups such as Focus E15, there’s been a real sense of flux; of an interregnum with no clear end in sight. The current storm (if it can be called that) around Jeremy Corbyn feels perfectly at home in this context. If you live in the UK and follow politics, it can’t have escaped your attention that the demonisation of Corbyn is in full swing. Ever since Yougov released a poll putting Corbyn in first place of the Labour leadership election, those who want to pretend that we’re ‘back to normal’ have been going feral. The Guardian in particular has been dismally hilarious with their endless attack pieces:
I don’t need to write how utterly absurd most of this is – many others have already eloquently done so. I did, however, want to write a few words about some of the stock responses the Labour right (exemplars of the ‘carry on as normal’ crew) have offered in response to Corbyn’s rise. Much of them are encapsulated in this truly terrible piece by Robert Priest, finger-wagging at the left for being out-of-touch with the electorate. Most people, he argues, aren’t particularly left-wing, although they are ‘surely to the left of the Conservative frontbench on many issues’. We are, it seems, in that ever mythical ‘centre-ground’ which the Labour right are absolutely obsessed with. Priest uses data from the British Social Attitude survey to make this argument. The following paragraph leapt out at me:
Most pressing for the Left is the big picture: the proportion of people in favour of higher taxation and spending has collapsed from 63 per cent to just 37 per cent in the ten years from 2004 to 2014. Support for welfare spending has plummeted. Those who remember Blair-era clichés about a ‘social-democratic majority’ should consider whether they still stand up to scrutiny.
It’s true that the proportion supporting higher tax and welfare spending has been in ‘long-term’ decline. Yet if we take an even longer view, the picture isn’t quite so clear-cut: Support for increasing taxes and spending more actually rose between ’83 and plateaued around ’91/’92 before beginning its (shaky) decline. If we look at this graph in 10 year increments, it’s clear that public opinion on this question can vary enormously in relatively short periods of time. The BSA argues that this variation may match public spending – ie when the Thatcher government was cutting spending, support for more spending rose and the converse under New Labour – but this seems too pat:
We can see, for example, that support for more tax/spending rose in ’90/’91 while public spending was rising, and decreased betwen ’98-’00 when public spending was still falling. We’ve also not seen any marked increase in recent support despite public spending falling since 2010. What we can take away from this, then, is that a) public opinion is fluid and not easily explained and so therefore, b) there is no such thing as a fixed ‘centre’ of opinion. It seems fair to surmise that government and wider politics plays a role in shaping public opinion; it also seems certain that the media plays a big role here. This seems to be underlined by this infamous study which found that the ‘British public (are) wrong about nearly everything’. It cannot be a coincidence that opinion on matters like teenage pregnancy, immigration and welfare closely echoes the misconceptions advanced by our largely right-wing media (and indeed government). This is why one of the key arguments of the Labour right, that “we must start by meeting the voters where they are, not where we would like them to be“, is a nonsense. This means making policy on the basis of opinion which is both fluid and often misinformed.
It’s notable, of course, that this argument is always deployed to defend reinforcing negative stereotypes about welfare and immigration rather than, say, supporting renationalisation or taxing wealth. In the latter cases public opinion is seen as complex, changing or just plain wrong (see also Priest’s attempts to parse public opinion on abolishing tuition fees). Right-wing public opinion, however, is presented as immutable. So we end up with the absurdity of Labour leadership candidates supporting clampdowns on ‘welfare migrants’ despite it being based almost entirely on misinformation and ignorance as to its actual impact. Similarly, Labour’s capitulation to the welfare bill was based largely on public ignorance, whether that be with regards to the ‘benefit cap’ (which doesn’t save much money and makes people poorer) or welfare spending overall (increase over past 35 years is overwhelmingly due to pensions, approx. 31% of spending goes to older people as opposed to 3.6% to the unemployed/those on low incomes and it’s not out of line with comparable economies). I don’t even have to go into how far from any reality our immigration ‘debate’ is.
The Labour right, then, would have us make the lives of some of our most vulnerable citizens worse in order to satisfy public ignorance.This brings me to another of their favoured arguments: that if Labour don’t win an election it is “not in a position to help people in Britain”. Ironically enough, this argument betrays the kind of paternalism and lack of imagination which these people like to berate the left for. Politics and the change it delivers is not gifted from on-high by benevolent politicians – it is a constant terrain of struggle and ‘ordinary’ people fight every day to change opinion and to help each other. Public opinion on ‘equal marriage’, for example, was far ahead of our politicians, with a majority supporting it before even civil partnerships were introduced. In refusing to acknowledge the power it has as both the party of opposition and as a potential social movement, the Labour right abdicates the terrain of public opinion and perception to the right. I’m not suggesting for a moment that public ignorance re: immigration or welfare is easily addressed but imagine a passionate, vibrant Labour Party vigorously making those arguments. It would matter and it would help people. Would support for benefit spending have steadily declined over the past 30 years had New Labour not embraced the rhetoric that it was a ‘problem‘ and aimed at the feckless? Would welfare policy be as it is currently had Labour not introduced ideas like workfare, tougher sanctions and work capability assessments? Would Labour’s achievements in reducing (some) poverty be so easily reversed had it loudly made the case for a welfare state and redistribution rather than attempting to ‘redistribute by stealth’? Would we be seeing the current Tory attack on industrial rights had Labour rolled back Thatcher’s restrictions on trade union activity?
We need only look at tuition fees to see the reality of the Overton Window and Labour’s ability to actively shape public opinion – in under 20 years the debate has moved from ‘tax-funded higher education vs tuition fees’ to one on what the level of tuition fees should be, with the Labour right presenting Corbyn’s abolition policy as the politics of irresponsibility and fantasy. The great irony is that it is the attachment of the Labour right to its own fantasy which is repeating itself here. The modern Labour right is obsessed with the founding myth of Michael Foot and the ‘longest suicide note in history’. Again and again we are told that Foot (and people like Tony Benn) took Labour to the brink of destruction with their loony left-wing ideas. Yet one of the things which radicalised Benn was his discovery in office of just how little power the left had against the forces of the British establishment and global capital. The context of the ‘Winter of Discontent’ wasn’t profligate left-wing barons running wild but a global crisis in capitalism which led Labour to seek an IMF loan, with concomitant stinging cuts. Following Thatcher’s election in ’79, Labour was actually ahead in the polls:
As you can see, Labour support actually briefly increased following Foot’s election. It then begins to decline as soon as the Labour right broke away and formed the SDP. Note that Tory support continued to decline during this period – the decline was clearly overwhelmingly due to the SDP splitting the vote. As late as April 1982, the ‘unelectable’ foot was still ahead of the Tories in the polls. That same month, the Falklands War began and the Tories experienced a massive surge in the polls – in the space of 14 days they went from being behind to having a double-digit lead, clearly the beneficiary of inflamed nationalist sentiment (where have we seen that since, I wonder?) This is now an ‘alternate history’, rarely advanced due to the dominance of the notion that Labour under Foot was irredeemable. Yet it was the Labour right who delivered the initial blow and in that sense history really is repeating itself as they obsess more over the ‘positioning’ of the party than in fighting the Conservatives and articulating a positive vision of society.
Labour has real power now and it actively harms people now when it refrains to use it in the arrogant assumption that it can only effect change when in government. I think this is a large part of why so many have been enthused by the Corbyn campaign, which seems positively exploding with energy when compared to his three competitors. It is also, ironically, the one which seems most based in reality in its refusal to bend to ignorance re: issues like welfare. There can be no doubt that Labour faces an almighty struggle to return to power and that Corbyn would face an onslaught (including from his own party) if he were leader. Yet he grasps that being in power is not a goal in itself. He grasps that what Labour does now matters. That’s why his demonisation by the right is failing dismally and why a sense of real possibility is afoot. It is not Corbyn who is repeating the mistakes of the past.